Subtitled, “Sexual Exploitation as a Form of Male Violence”, this post includes a recording and transcript of a powerful and compelling talk given by Sarah, a prostitution survivor, at Reclaim The Night in Victoria Hall, Fremantle, Perth, Australia, on 29 October 2021.
Liz: Sarah is a long-time environmentalist, feminist, and LGBT activist and member of Reclaim The Night. Sarah is also an artist and graphic artist.
Sarah: Thank you. I am not as polished a person as Liz. While she has her wonderful folder, I have notes on my phone.
So I would like to start by quoting Andrea Dworkin like a good little feminist, specifically what she had to say about incest being boot camp for prostitution, or it’s often paraphrased that way.
“Incest is boot camp. Incest is where you send the girl to learn how to do it. So you don’t, obviously, have to send her anywhere, she’s already there and she’s got nowhere else to go. She’s trained. And the training is specific and it is important: not to have any real boundaries to her own body; to know that she’s valued only for sex; to learn about men what the offender, the sex offender, is teaching her.”
So while I was preparing to speak tonight I dug up an old forum account I used to use when I was in prostitution to advertise and engage with punters. And one of the reasons why I was there for the first time in over a decade was for that stressful little section we did on punters in their own words to see if I could dig up a review thread for me and slip a quote about me in there. [Editor: Earlier in the event, there was a performance piece based on quotes from punter forums.]
And it turns out that the thread full of reviews of my body and my sexual performance had since been archived, but my account was still there, and a lot of my other posts including exchanged messages between me and punters and even a review that one notable brothel owner gave my body that talked about my wide, innocent eyes and my tender age of 18 being an excellent selling point.
So something that might not make a lot of sense is that while looking through this stuff, including pictures of myself, I found myself missing prostitution. Not because there was anything remotely good about it, but because seeing those pictures of myself and reading those things made me feel bad about myself and a little bit dead inside, and my mind’s kneejerk response to those feelings is to seek to self-harm, and to self-harm through prostitution.
So over a decade has passed since I left prostitution and my life is transformed. My mental health is better than it’s ever been and I’ve been firmly abolitionist for several years now. And still, I can be made to feel like getting fucked by strange, dangerous men is where I belong and where I’m most at home.
And that’s not because I’m one of the special breeds of women who have an innate predisposition to getting fucked by strangers for a living. It’s because being sexually exploited is familiar territory I got well acquainted with in childhood, and all my life it’s been a place where things are predictable and I know what my role is.
I was in prostitution only for about a year and I was consciously preparing to enter the sex trade when I was 17, which is a difficult thing to make sense of if you don’t understand that I was being prepared for the sex trade my entire life.
Beginning to engage in prostitution might seem like a big decision, but for many girls it’s almost an inevitability; the difference between life before and after prostitution for some girls is basically just the addition of a fee. Being exposed to porn from a very young age gave me a look at what was valued in a woman, and what men wanted to do to women. And as those things came to pass, the message was legitimized and deeply entrenched in me in the way only experience can entrench it.
Between being assaulted and raped throughout childhood and adolescence, exchanging blow jobs for bus fare in high school; the years I spent being pornographically photographed and subjected to painful and humiliating porn-inspired sex acts by male partners… there are lessons that are hammered into your psyche through the violation of your body.
There is no amount of feminist messaging that can combat those lessons learned through physical experience. Sexual objectification, exploitation and violence are inevitable and this is what a girl is for.
Even well-intentioned, self-described feminists and progressives seem to think that’s what some girls are for too, as they’re often incapable or unwilling to see any relationship between what they consider the “choice” to be prostituted, and the societal grooming that precedes it. So often I encounter women who’ve never had any contact with the sex trade, thankfully, much less been the ones doing the sucking and fucking, talking about how they could never personally do it, but that they support other women’s right to do it. This is often after they’ve called me a SWERF and told me to “listen to sex workers” without any irony.
But I always question them, because I want to know what they mean that they “could never do it”, because frankly if you have a body it can be sexually exploited. End of. What they mean is that they’re not experiencing the circumstances that would cause them to choose it, and perhaps they can’t imagine what circumstances could possibly lead them to that choice in the first place. But the important thing here is that they know that routinely getting fucked by men they don’t want to sleep with would be harmful to them. And they’re right, we all know that’s harmful because we have a word for it that starts with an “R”.
Where they go wrong is in assuming that there are other women out there for whom it’s NOT harmful. They suppose that there is another class of women for whom getting fucked by strangers all day is OK, or even an innate predisposition. And this premise is deeply insulting and degrading in any direction; both the suggestion that some girls are born with a predilection for being raped, and the suggestion that the reason prostitution was so traumatic and harmful to women like me is because we lacked this innate quality and were therefore not “cut out for it”.
Some so-called progressives have even gone so far as to frame being prostituted as a matter of identity. It’s very common to see “sex workers” included on a rattled off list of marginalized groups alongside black/indigenous, trans, disabled people etc. I take issue with this. Not because prostituted women aren’t marginalized, they clearly are, but because putting the state of prostitution up alongside things which are widely understood and accepted to be inalienable characteristics of a person is absolutely foul.
I can understand why the well-intentioned do this, especially women. If they let go of this idea that there are some girls who grow up to be women tailor made for prostitution then they’d have to be faced with some horrific truths: that unwanted sex is rape and there’s no woman for whom that’s less true and no amount of financial compensation that makes it less true.
No girl is born with prostitution as her calling and no woman is “cut out” for or “suited to” prostitution. There are millions of girls worldwide who are being funneled into it through a pipeline of sexual objectification and abuse so persistent and effective that being able to choose the when, where and how of our sexual exploitation seems like a comparatively good deal. The reality is that a man who pays to stick his dick in you when you don’t want it only seems like a good guy in contrast to the men who do it to you without paying.
The progressives would also have to ask themselves why, in a post-me-too world, the idea that men just gotta have it and therefore there must be some underclass of women available to provide it, still persists. The idea that there are women suited to prostitution exists because of our unwillingness to challenge the idea that men have the right to sexually access women. If we were to accept that there is no underclass of women with an inborn immunity to the damage of continually being fucked by unwanted dicks, then we’re left with a society of men for whom sex with women must be provided, and women who shoulder the burden of providing it at the cost of their own wellbeing.
It’s much easier to swallow the idea that this is a job that some girls are born destined to do and do gladly, than to accept that this is a form of mass torture normalized to the point that women are groomed into co-operating with it, either by being subjected to it directly ourselves, OR by championing and defending it as long as it’s happening to “other” women.
The only real difference between the women who “could never do it” and those of us who have done it, is that one of us is fortunate to have not found herself in circumstances that make getting fucked by strange men for a living look like a better deal.